Originally printed April 10, 2012.
Toward the end of Carol Anshaw's "Carry the One," there's a clever scene in which one of the novel's protagonists, Alice, plans a stay-at-home date with her much younger lover, Diane, to watch John Sayles's 1983 film, "Lianna."
Alice is hoping the film will help explain what it was like for her to come out as a lesbian in the 1980s. But she isn't prepared for how Diane responds to the film's now dated and "hideously embarrassing scene in a dingy dyke bar."
"This is kind of like Colonial Williamsburg," Diane says, "You know — pioneer folkways."
That's when Alice realizes that she "did not want Diane to be the appreciative tourist. She did not herself want to be the docent in the dirndl skirt. She flipped 'Lianna' off with the remote and they got down to business."
It's all very smartly done — especially the impressive use of the word "dirndl" — but the scene suffers from the same problem as the novel does as whole: It simultaneously depends too much and not enough on the broader and deeper story that the characters seem to want to forget about.
Diane isn't just Diane. She's also Dr. Pryzbicki — the physician who is caring for Alice's terminally ill mother. And their budding relationship basically is a "superficial affair" to distract Alice from her haunting problems.
And "Carry the One" isn't just the story of Alice's life as an artist — one filled with various periods of drugs, complicated relationships and creative insights. It's also the story of Alice and those closest to her coming to terms with how — back in the mid-1980s — their car hit and killed Casey Redman, a 10 year-old girl who had been dancing in the street, late at night, in the middle of nowhere.
It's hard to imagine any novelist being able to reconcile lighthearted sentences like the ones quoted above with sentences such as: "The first Alice saw of the girl was not her standing on the side of the road, or even running across it, but already thudding onto the hood of the car. A jumble of knees and elbows, and then her face, frozen in surprise, eyes wide open, huge on the other side of the windshield."
And while Anshaw doesn't quite pull it off, she does try her best.
"Carry the One" traces Alice and company through the next quarter century. And as the years unravel, Anshaw focuses on how the death of Casey Redman death is simultaneously essential and extraneous to the characters' continuing lives.
"Alice could see a whole world of paintings ahead of her that she wanted to make, and would make them," the narrator explains, "but none would be as good as the Casey Redman paintings. She wasn't sure if this was a gift, or a sentence."
Anshaw's characters probably would be more psychologically healthy if they could move past Casey's death, but they are much more interesting when they are remembering her than when focusing on themselves.
Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at email@example.com or 887-5435.